A Conversation with The Amity Affliction's Ahren Stringer
Mike Ragogna: Ahren, the band is part of Blessfall's The Hollow Bodies Tour. How's that been going?
Ahren Stringer: It's been amazing for us, we have to punch ourselves every night. This is our 6th US tour and we've NEVER experienced shows like this! I can't wait to come back.
MR: Let The Ocean Take Me is The Amity Affliction's fourth album. What are some of the biggest events that the band has been through since the beginning?
AS: Well we've been a band for 11 years now so quite a lot! We've lost members, gained members, kicked members out, toured the world, released four albums and three EP's, we've laughed, we've cried and we've almost died. We've been working on making a DVD about this for ages so stay tuned for a much more detailed answer haha.
MR: How do you feel Australian metalcore differs from the US's?
AS: To me it seems a lot more honest, not to say that the metal scene in the US is bad, but I see so many bands in the 'scene' who are in it for all the wrong reasons. There are Australian bands like that also, but they don't go anywhere, I feel like for some reason a lot of kids, particularly in the US, follow these garbage hype bands that have zero substance. It kind of bums me out, but all we can do about it is show them something meaningful and honest through our own music and hopefully they choose the right one. But yeah, I'm thankful there isn't many of those kinds of bands in Australia, I hope it stays that way.
MR: The single "Pittsburgh" seems pretty powerful. What inspired its theme?
AS: Joel had a pretty serious seizure as a result of alcohol withdrawals. When I say pretty I mean very. He could've easily died if no one was around. That happened in Pittsburgh last year on Warped Tour.
MR: When it comes to topics, how do you and the band hone-in on what you're writing about?
AS: Joel writes the lyrics.
MR: How do you think your recordings and performances have evolved most since your debut, Severed Ties?
AS: Well, we all obviously grew up a lot and started taking everything a lot more seriously including playing live. Obviously, working with better producers and learning everything you can from them is really eye-opening in regards to song writing. I don't know, you do something for long enough you progress and get better and better at every aspect of it. And if you aren't getting better, then you're doing it wrong.
MR: Chasing Ghosts pretty much established the band as one of Australia's great exports. What are your expectations for Let The Ocean Take Me?
AS: I mean, I always have pretty high expectations, I'm not cocky but I have sincere confidence and pride in everything we release so I'm hoping that this album will put us on the map a little more in the US and EU which are both really tough markets to crack. I mean we're stoked with anything though I would be more than happy for it to do as well as Chasing Ghosts.
MR: How did you approach this album differently than the others?
AS: No different except we now have Dan Brown writing with us as well which was the perfect fit. Dan and I are really like-minded musically and agree on almost everything so it was a total breeze to write this record with him. We both love '80s hits which shines through on a fair few tracks and we love breakdowns which sounds like an odd mix but I think it works beautifully.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
AS: Cliché but work hard and don't expect anything handed to you. It's not an easy game to play so don't let a few bumps in the road get you down. Write music and never stop writing music. And don't start a band for the wrong reasons, it's a pretty brutal industry, there's very little money in it for artists unless you get Metallica big.
MR: What does the future bring for The Amity Affliction?
AS: Hopefully a bandwagon instead of this bumpy ass van we're in right now.
MR: When will The Amity Affliction's acoustic, unplugged project be released?
AS: Whenever hell freezes over, I guess!
A Conversation with Danny Griego
Mike Ragogna: So it seems like "The Coast Is Clear" for Cowboys, Outlaws & Border Town Dogs.
Danny Griego: Absolutely. The coast is clear, we're rolling right along with it.
MR: Let's get a little background on the new album, Danny.
DG: Well, it seemed like an appropriate title. I kind of wanted a title that would string through the common thread of the album. There's a song on there called "Three Legged Bordertown Mexican Dog" that I wrote with hall of fame songwriter Red Lane. It's about going where the gringos shouldn't go, down in Mexico. My heroes have always been cowboys, I have a lot of cowboy friends and a lot of horsemen that have been training me over the years to ride cutting horses and what have you. So there's a song on there that Haggard penned called "I Wear My Own Kind Of Hat." I was in there under Waylon Jennings' wing, I had the unique pleasure to run around with him at the climax of his career back around the year 2000 to 2002 and we did some shows in New Mexico. He actually cut a song I wrote called "At The Crossroads" and we're going to put it out on the next album. I've been waiting to release it because I didn't want to ride out there on his name. I got to run around with Waylon and he took me under his wing and introduced me around and just taught me a whole lot, that's kind of where the outlaw thing came from. The outlaw thing is really just doing your music your way and not necessarily falling into that real thin eye of the needle that they try to put you through once they find something that's selling and works.
MR: What do you think about the state of outlaw country these days?
DG: I think there's a real movement going on. A lot of people are just yearning for something real, and I think that happens when we're in our place in the world where we have wars and pestilence going on and people yearn to get back to their roots in the heartland. They want to hear songs about life and about values. In Hollywood everything is all action and adventure and suspense, sometimes you just yearn to get back to where you're from. I think outlaw country has really taken on a big movement.
MR: How much of your music reflects your lifestyle?
DG: Boy, about all of it. I live what I write and write what I live. I'm an artist who rolls down the road on my bus. I'm from the Willie Nelson school, there's a guy that does two hundred and seventy dates a year. He's a hero of mine, he's a real songwriter, I couldn't say enough good things about him. That's kind of where I am. I couldn't really have a girlfriend right now because who would put up with me? I'm just rolling down the road in a 379 Peterbilt rig that's been turned into a tour bus. I'm pretty much on my bus all the time.
MR: What goes on in that bus?
DG: Well her name's Desiree, because she's high maintenance and likes expensive shoes. The racers like her. I'm on tour with the National Hot Rod Association and we're rolling around doing sixteen dates with them this year, which could potentially turn into 44 shows next year. I'll be on tour with them for the next three years, I'm the top sponsor of the Pro Stock Motorcycle Series Shootout.
MR: What about John Force, have you ever run across The Force Family?
DG: Absolutely, he's a class act. What a legend and an icon. He was nice enough to hang out with me for a day out in Pomona last year. They're doing really well, they've been sweeping a lot of the races, he's just a really classy guy.
MR: Yep, and his daughter is almost following in his footsteps. She's already won a couple of races.
DG: Yeah, the girls are the real deal. They live, eat and breathe racing. There's a lot of parallels to what we do, too, because we're rolling down the road with our crew, maintaining our rigs and getting tuned for our shows. It's really a parallel lifestyle.
MR: Are there any times you get inspired and you just have to run off and write?
DG: Mickey Newbury said something about that. He said, "You'll know you're a real songwriter when you'll get up at three in the morning out of a warm bed next to somebody you love and walk barefoot through the snow to go get a tape recorder and a pen out of your pickup truck because you have a song that's knocking on your door." Hank Cochran was telling me, "You've got to write it down." That brings up one of the best pieces of advice I got from any songwriter, my friend Red Lane, "Creativity has no memory," so when it's time to write, you've got to do it then. That's true of any creativity, really.
MR: It's almost like it comes and haunts you if you don't do it. It either goes away because it's like, "okay, this guy's not interested," or if it's really insistent you don't have any choice.
DG: Absolutely, both of those things are really true. You said if it goes away if it's not interested, it's almost like it's its own energy force rolling down this river that you tap into and if you're not ready for it or can't match it or you're not interested in it it'll just keep rolling right on down that river.
MR: Have your goals changed from when you first started out? What would be "success" to you in your genre? Are you already there?
DG: No, not in my mind. If the lord gives you a hammer, drive nails. He gave me a pen, and I'm trying to get my song out to a mass audience. Right now that's a real tough go for a guy like me. I'm an independent artist on a little label, we're very fortunate to have gotten into the top thirty on Billboard and an immediate base. It's kind of unheard of these days, the big machine pushing me down the road. The amount of money that's put into those big artists is the difference between a minor league baseball team and a major league baseball team. The budgets are astronomical. For me, success is all about the song, it's about writing the song that I get and then having it spinning out there on the radio, and that just doesn't happen enough in my world to where I would call where I'm at a big success.
MR: Are these songs your kids?
DG: Absolutely. You believe in every one of them. It's kind of funny you said that, because you'll get one and you're all about that song and it takes on a life of its own, it means different things to different people and then pretty soon that song's just out there doing its own thing and you're watching it. I wrote a thing called "Lady Liberty," a major in the armed forces asked me to write it for him, about his wife. He didn't give me the title or anything, but he said, "Can you please write a song about my wife?" He's getting ready to go out on his fourth tour of duty, special forces, and I told him, "Buddy I don't have bullets whizzing by my head, I'm not walking in your boots, it's going to be really tough for me to write that song." But you're discounting creativity, because the song just rolled in through the door and I'm just the guy with the pen. I grabbed a pen and a pad of paper and wrote down what the man handed me and the next thing you know I'm singing it to the joint chiefs of staff. Next thing you know, Mike Huckabee hears about The Coast Is Clear and he asked me to go be on a show. What an honor. I'm getting ready to go sing "Lady Liberty" and it's just about freedom. It's just about being able to live in a country where we're free and how thankful I am to be able to do that.
MR: All politics aside, what do you think when you look at the United States these days?
DG: You know, I had a guy pick me up at an airport, I called for a cab. I'd just finished a four-day ride, I was up in the hills riding with some hombre friends of mine. We didn't see civilization for four days and then rolled into Los Angeles. Wow, what a huge city. We rolled in after being out in a tent by the campfire for four days--it's almost like rolling in from 1860. The guy that picked me up was a cab driver from the middle east. You hear all these things in the media and you don't know what to think. It really comes down to the person. He and I talked about the United States, how things are today as opposed to how they were in the fifties. I was telling him how I'd probably be better off as an artist in the sixties. He told me where he was from, and he said, "You know, Danny, I lived in a little teeny shack with my children, and now I'm in the greatest country in the world. I live in the United States Of America in a four-bedroom house with a two-car garage, my kids are going to a private school, anybody who says this country isn't great just don't know what they're talking about because they haven't lived here and done it." That guy doesn't sound like our enemy to me, man. He sounds like an American. That's what this country is about. This is a land of opportunity. I don't talk about politics a whole lot. What do I know? I'm just a country music singer, okay? I just roll down the road in a bus, write songs and meet really great people. But I do see a lot of our country, and I think that I'm very fortunate to be able to roll down the road in my bus and be able to cross borders without showing my papers and be free. That's what this land is about.
MR: Beautiful. What advice do you have for new artists?
DG: That's a great question. Waylon gave me some advice when I was coming up. I was on tour with him the last couple of years, and he cut one of my songs, it's called "The Crossroads," we're going to be releasing it here soon. He told me, "Don't go running off to Nashville until they come knocking on your door. I really didn't understand what he was talking about, everyone wants to run off to Nashville or to one of the centers, whether it be LA or New York or wherever the mecca is of their art. I think the best thing you can really do as an entertainer is get out there with the people and play your music for the fans. You'll learn your craft as you work your way through playing out there. When you start making enough noise and playing enough shows and the people respond to you, those people in Nashville and the powers that be will come knocking on your door. Then the doors will be open for you. But if you go out there chasing it and go away from everything you love and your family and go out there and chase it, you're going to find that the doors are probably going to be closed.
MR: Interesting. That's really wild. I have to say, I would love to know a couple of the stories behind these titles, like "I Think She Only Likes Me For My Willie." [laughs]
DG: We're just talking about Willie Nelson on that one, Michael. Paul Overstreet wrote that song, Paul's written some great songs.
MR: Yeah, he's great. Tell me about "Three Legged Bordertown Mexican Dog."
DG: I wrote that with Red Lane. We were headed down into Mexico and I'd been running really hard. I used to have two of my own honky-tonks and I ran a chain of restaurants, I just didn't sleep a lot. The music bug had hit me so hard I was playing in honky tonks six or seven nights a week. I'd taken four days off and picked up Red at the airport and we were rolling south. He said, "Son, you don't look very good, man, are you getting any sleep?" and I said, "Red, I'm feeling like a three-legged bordertown dog." And he laughed and said, "No, a three-legged bordertown Mexican dog." I had a pickup truck stolen from me in Mexico, I jumped over a barbed wire fence -- I was looking at this horse -- I jumped in the back of my truck and was able to get it back, long story short. The guy that stole it, when I was down on the beach at the house in Mexico one of the guys that does work for me came running up the driveway one day with a paper and he said, "Senior Danny, Mira!" Look! Look! And he shows me the paper and it's got a picture of the guy with a gun in front of his face, they shoot you with your crime, and he was put in prison for armed robbery. I thought, "Man, I am the luckiest guy on the face of the Earth" because I'm sure that guy was carrying a gun when he took the truck, I'm lucky I'm not laying on the cold sand in Mexico. Anyway, we wrote that song around the idea of going where the gringo shouldn't go and the kind of trouble you can get in down in Mexico.
MR: Have you had a lot fun in Mexico?
DG: Absolutely, it's a lot of fun to go down there. Of course, you've got to stay where you're supposed to stay, don't go running around doing things you shouldn't be doing.
MR: So you're going to be touring, you've got that Mello Yello thang coming up. What is that again?
DG: We're going to be in Atlanta next, I believe that date is May 17th, but the race is the 16th through the 18th. I'm on tour with the National Hot Rod Association. It's an awesome venue, it's not as big as NASCAR but it's every bit as fun. I think once people get out there and experience the brand of being able to walk right up to a racer's pit and meet a lot of the racers and a lot of the stars out there, NHRA really have their act together. Those guys couldn't have been more receptive for us. We've been rolling around with them doing shows, I guess we're doing all right, we got an encore and a standing ovation at the last show we did, so that's really encouraging for us to come back and keep after it. My goal is to do some shows with the NHRA with some of my heroes, get out there with some other artists, some rock acts like ZZ Top. I'm hoping to do a show out there with Merle Haggard someday soon.
MR: It looks like AmeriMonte is going to be doing a Ray Price album, does Ray Price mean anything to you?
DG: Oh gosh, yeah, he's the father of the country shuffle. He invented it in the Texas honky tonk listening to people speak and he turned back behind him and asked his drummer, "Can you make that sound with your drum?" and that became the country shuffle. Ray was 87 when he passed, we lost an icon. I'm just ecstatic to have anything to do with any part of his career. We found out that he didn't have a label for his last album and we reached out to him and asked him if we could work with him. We worked out a deal with Ray, he's just a class act and he's always a gentleman. We worked out a deal with him and he signed to AmeriMonte records and we're very happy that the rerelease of his album actually came out yesterday and it'll be available in stores. It's called Beauty Is.
MR: That's really terrific. Good for you. What does the future bring for you?
DG: Well I'm a highway man, I'm just a troubadour, I'm out there trucking down the road, doing my shows. The future for me, ideally, will be having some of my children--my songs--become successful.
Transcribed By Galen Hawthorne
A TURIN BRAKES EXCLUSIVE
A Conversation with Ben Arthur
Mike Ragogna: Hey, Ben! What the heck are you up to?
Ben Arthur: I'm finishing up my new album, which is a collection of "answer" songs, responses to other people's either songs or short stories. We're also mixing these songs that we did in Austin for the songwriting web series I work with called SongCraft Presents. We're putting together pieces for Acoustic Café, and are going to broadcast some pieces about the songs. And I'm taking care of my two girls!
MR: You don't sound like you're doing anything lately. That's really unfortunate.
BA: [laughs] You know it's funny, I hear people occasionally make that kind of joke, but I'm an artist, I work on art. No one says to the plumber "You fixed how many toilets today? That's amazing!" You know, it's what I do. It's not extraordinary. If you spend your time doing art, it stacks up.
MR: Let's go into the album. The call/response concept, where did that come from and what pieces are you pickin' on in your project?
BA: As artists, we're all standing on the shoulders of giants, and that's sort of a nice way of saying "stealing from" the people who influence us. I've always been fascinated by that process of finding a thing in someone else that sort of rocks you back on your heels and makes you think about how they're doing what they're doing, and pulling it apart and reacting to it. There have been a lot of amazing "answer" songs throughout our musical history; one of the most well-known is "Sweet Home Alabama," which was an answer song to Neil Young's "Southern Man." So there've been some great ones throughout history, and it's always fascinated me. I wrote a song that felt to me, just by the way the song came together, like a response to The Police's "Roxanne," and I just thought that was fun and I started working on more of them. In ways, it's a method for poking yourself in the butt and making yourself work. It's like "Here's something you love, try to respond to it, and try to do something that even in a small way stands up to it." And then I started trying to not just do music, but also try to do short stories and literary-type stuff, which was a different angle, but was something I got a huge kick out of.
MR: Were some stories more resonant with you than others, where you put more of yourself into the project than not?
BA: A lot of the stories that I worked with were really chosen for me in some way. I was working with Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker, whom I ran into at a George Saunders event, and she sent me a story by Alice Munro. I really enjoy not having to pick out things, but having them sort of set before me. Deborah kept asking me, "What do you want to write about? Pick anything from the catalog and it can be something that you can answer," but I really enjoyed that challenge of not being part of that process and having it set before me. It's like a method for forcing myself to do the thing that I want to do, but that's so easy to avoid, which is writing.
MR: What is it like for you to make yourself write? What's it like having to sit down in front of a thing and say, "Okay, here we go," or is it just totally natural to go into that mode?
BA: Well, SongCraft Presents is in some ways related in that it's also a method of scaring myself into doing the thing that I want to do but that's so easy to avoid doing. If there are a bunch of cameras in your face and there's an artist sitting across from you who you deeply admire and want to impress, you're going to give it your best. Similarly, when someone puts something in front of you and says, "Do what you do, and get it to me by next week," you just do it, and it's pleasant. It's a way of distracting yourself from the voices, the doubt that inevitably crops up--it always has for me, and I think it does for other artists--that keeps you from moving forward.
MR: How does your songwriting web series function? How does that come together, who chooses what, etc.?
BA: We just did a big project in South By Southwest where we had at our disposal all these extraordinary artists that came in for the festival, and we just asked people that we admired, "Hey, would you consider doing this?" and depending on the artist, they might come in with an idea. For example, when we worked with Turin Brakes, they had come in with a musical idea and some lyrics, and the lead singer has one of these beautifully indistinct voices, where you catch the lyrics but other lyrics you sort of misinterpret or mishear, so we actually had him mumble the lyrics that he had, and I wrote out what I imagined I was hearing, and then toyed with that, and so in a weird way it became sort of an answer song. He had like a chunk of a verse and a chunk of a chorus, and then we ended up blowing out this idea and blowing out his lyrics in a different direction and it was really fun. So that one we had a very specific thing to react to that he'd already brought to the table. With others, they walk in and have absolutely nothing at all. The reason I was at that George Saunders event I mentioned earlier was that we had taken a story that he'd told in an article about a plane crash, and we wrote a song to that the previous year with Ben Sollee and Erin McKeown. So you can really approach it different ways depending on the artist and depending on the artist's comfort with the unknown and how much they want to have a direction, and how much they want to just feel. I worked with Tracy Bonham on one of these, and she liked to bring a book that she loved and flip through pages and point randomly to words. She did the same thing with the keyboard where she just slammed her hand down on the keyboard and she played this D diminished chord which is where we ended up starting the song from. It ended up not sounding like that, necessarily, but she liked to have that random-number-generator sort of approach to inspiration.
MR: Here's a concept. In your opinion, where do you draw the line in art between artistic expression and mental illness?
BA: I think I know what you mean. I think artistic expression sort of associates itself with mental illness because you have to let go and say what's really on your mind...
MR: ...which, in our society, of course, is associated with mental illness.
BA: Well, exactly. And if you get a beginning artist in a room and you say "Write me a song about X, Y or Z," they'll quickly fall into very worn channels; clichés and ideas that a million people have said, and that's natural. But artists in a weird way specialize in creativity, and creativity is essentially not saying "no" to things, and allowing all sorts of strangeness and odd ideas and odd phrases and things that do, in many cases, sound suspiciously close to mental illness.
MR: It seems that a lot of people that are really good at expressing themselves artistically have a very active right side of the brain that ends up being so powerful that the left side can't reel it in. And it is interesting how being mentally or emotionally challenged gets naturally associated with creativity in many cases.
BA: Sure. And beyond which, for a lot of artists we're rewarding that strange mix of creativity and crazy--"Cray-Cray," let's say; and so you put someone in a situation where you say "Hey, this works for you, and the more offbeat you are, and the more odd you are, the better we're going to reward you and the more seriously we're going to take you," because we associate that craziness with truth, with reality, with legitimacy. I think in many ways that's where you end up with what feels to me like an act. There's nothing that's entirely different about the crazy acts of a super well-respected artist; you know, the teased hair, and Spandex pants of your average metal band... It's just different ways of saying, in some ways, the same thing. Having the ability to do both things is, particularly these days, absolutely essential, and what I struggle with sometimes is the sense that I am supposed to pretend to be the "Crazy artist," too. I think that I'm genuinely a creative person, but I can't bring myself to put on an act as far as "I'm SO creative that I can't talk in normal sentences," or "I must wear hats from the 1940s in order to express my creativity," or whatever it is that we're associating with "hipness" at the moment.
MR: So I suggested the concept of an over-firing right hemisphere of the brain, but where you see creativity abundantly?
BA: Creativity's essentially the work of figuring out how to be true and honest and to do it in a new way if you can. I reject the idea that it's like "Oh, the music comes from on high," and "I was born to this," and this idea that only certain people have it, and they're touched by the gods, and they're crazy and they're wild. I think it's self-destructive, and I think it's rejecting a lot of the beauty that's out there. I spend all day doing this, so I'm comfortable doing it. If I spent all day fixing toilets, I could fix the crap out of a toilet! [laughs] Pun intended!
MR: [laughs] What's your advice for new artists?
BA: I would say do the work. You don't get to just step into the world as a finished artist, as someone who knows their sound and knows how to express that truth within them. You have to figure out what works and what doesn't work, and what works at one point might change and not work at a different point. And be willing to make an ass out of yourself. So, do the work with the postscript of "Be willing to sound terrible," and to write bad songs, and to try a project. My last album was an album and a novel; it was a concept project where they were interrelated and the two pieces worked with each other (hopefully), and in talking about it, I said a couple of times to different people that I knew it was something I should do because it scared the hell out of me and I wasn't sure I could do it. So I would say to a young artist, be willing to fail and to do work that doesn't feel easy, safe or okay, and take those risks.
MR: Beautiful, nice answer. By the way, can you list some of the artists with whom you've worked?
BA: Sure. A.J. Croce, John Wesley Harding, Ollabelle, Ben Sollee, Sean Rowe, Ximena Sariñana, Turin Brakes, Erin McKeown, and more. It's been a genuine joy and honor to be able to watch each of them in how they approach their work. It's really inspiring to get a chance to be invited into that personal space and see how they each approach this work, and I take notes.
MR: So you took some cues from them in the process.
BA: Oh yeah. Tracy's methods really struck me, and each of the artists I've worked with. And on my new record, one of the songs is a response song to a song that I wrote with Sean Rowe, because I found him so compelling as an artist. It's funny, I was saying to someone the other day that he feels, to me, like one of these artists that people 20 years from now are going to say, "Whoa, wait a minute, you wrote a song with Sean Rowe?" And I'll say, "Yeah, but then he was just this dude workin' in the stream -- nobody knew." So it's a real pleasure doing the show and getting the chance to work with those folks.
MR: What's the future look like for Ben Arthur?
BA: My new album Call And Response comes out October 7th. I'm so excited about it. And I was just thinking yesterday about how I need to start on my new record.
MR: What's your ultimate goal?
BA: The idea that I had of myself when I was younger didn't turn out to be what I am, and what my career's like. It really comes down to the fact that I would like to continue doing the work I'm doing now. I'd like to continue being able to work with people who I admire, and learn from them, continue doing work that scares the hell out of me and that's fun and engaging. My worst nightmare would be to end up in a place where I'm playing the same song every night and writing the same song every day.
MR: By the way, who are your influences?
BA: I stand of the shoulders of many giants. In other words, I steal from many, many, many people. Recently I've been listening to Beck's new album a lot. A lot of people on the album Call And Response whose songs I've responded to are people that I'm obviously touched by: "Atlantic City," the song by Bruce Springsteen, is one that's always shaken me, and that was one of the reasons I wanted to try to respond to it. "Walter Reed" is a song by Michael Penn that I just can't stop listening to, and that was one of the songs I wanted to respond to as well. "The Hymn of Acxiom" by Vienna Teng, off of her new album, is an extraordinary song. That song for me was one of the ones that I got in front of and wanted to write something to, and I couldn't. It was so good, so breathtakingly beautiful, that I couldn't even find an angle, so I had to give up. So, I steal from a lot of people. This album Call And Response really documents the people that I want to steal from directly.
MR: [laughs] That's a nice line. Well, Ben, I think that's your interview for now!
BA: Cool! What a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you for all the time that you took to hang out with me, and have this all put together. It was such an intelligent conversation. You don't always get that.
MR: Of course. And I loved talking about mental illness with someone I appreciate it.
BA: Excellent. I charge $90/hour.
Transcribed by Emily Fotis
A Conversation with Jolie Holland
Mike Ragogna: Jolie, Wine Dark Sea is your latest album. Can you take us on a tour of the material and the recording process?
Jolie Holland: This album represents my first attempt to heal my saxophonophobia. There are two full drum sets on every song, and sometimes four electric guitars at once. I've always been trying to get a band to sound this way. I basically put out a call to a number of musicians I've always respected, many of whom had been in my band for years. Nine of them were available, and I ended up working with seven. Most people these days don't cut rock albums with large live bands: this kind of recording is a challenge on several levels. The musicians admirably rose to the occasion. Large ensemble Dylan recordings like Blonde On Blonde served as an inspiration even though many people are playing at once, each player's voice is clear. I produced Wine Dark Sea with Douglas Jenkins. We mixed with Larry Crane of Tape Op fame. It was a great experience to work with this band and these engineers. Everyone brought so much soul and focus to the project.
MR: What's your creative process like these days and how has it changed over the years?
JH: Songs come to me when I'm walking down the street or riding the subway. I haven't tried to write a song since I was 14. Ever since then, I make them come get me.
MR: Do you consider yourself a "dark" writer?
JH: Not if I remember the sunscreen....
MR: If you weren't a songwriting performer, what other creative field might you have gone into?
JH: I write non-fiction. And I cook. But I hardly ever make visual art anymore. I was headed into fine art before music took over. Music also ruined my career as a cocktail waitress.
MR: What is the most revealing song about you on Wine Dark Sea?
JH: The songs reveal the listener; as Nanny Burks Freeman used to say, "every gesture of perception is a self-portrait." Anything the songs might seem to say about me would only be a reflection of the listener.
MR: When you perform live, how do the songs evolve from their studio versions into their live approaches?
JH: We devolve to reptilian forms. Except for guitarist Adam Brisbin. He goes rhinoceros.
MR: Anything in the news catching your eye?
JH: Child welfare and issues of cultural diversity always get to me: Here in North America, Lakota children are being removed from Lakota homes at a horrific, literally genocidal rate. The kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls are breaking my heart. Exiled Malian musicians are starting to be able to come home now that the Taliban is losing it's grip on Mali. The decade of Romani inclusion is at hand, and we'll see how well this serves the Romani people.
MR: Do you have an extended vision of how you're approaching music presently? Any frontiers you want to conquer beyond recording and performing?
JH: Music has always been a lot more to me than performing and recording. Music is a constant experience, like being married, except more reliable. It's something you can't lose.
MR: My traditional question, what advice do you have for new artists?
JH: I wouldn't presume to give advice to strangers.
MR: Is there anything that you've never revealed before about Jolie Holland that finally can be announced in this interview?
JH: Just because my job involves getting on stage doesn't mean I'm not naturally shy and private, like most people. The power of art is in the experience of the audience.